Flying lessons

“I realized that one day my home was full of clutter, my sink was overrun with dirty dishes, and I looked like a truck had just run over me.”

– anti-clutter guru Marla Cilley

Western N.C. native Marla Cilley, a.k.a. the FlyLady, just spent the whole day talking to People magazine. She’s also appeared on the Today show and in USA Today — and those are just the big interviews. “I’m not famous; I’m just me!” Cilley exclaims with a laugh. “All that really matters is that I have fun.”

All that national attention merely proves what Cilley’s massive fan base already knew: Cilley’s Web site, FlyLady.net, is way more than a self-help program for the organizationally challenged. The membership numbers tell the tale. The first day, there were 10 people; by the end of the first month, Cilley had 100 members. Within a year, the roster had swelled to 10,000 members; by the second year, there were 60,000; and now, as Cilley’s burgeoning business approaches its third year, she’s looking at nearly 150,000 members.

The FlyLady isn’t your average cutthroat business shark, however. She’s warm, talkative and maybe even a little corny. In fact, she has an acronym for every occasion. Take her own nickname, which began as her e-mail handle, a name she chose to reflect her love of fly-fishing. These days, FLY stands for “Finally Loving Yourself.”

“Are you ready to FLY?” Cilley asks in her book Sink Reflections: FlyLady’s BabyStep Guide to Overcoming CHAOS (Bantam, 2002). She adds, “Attitude affects altitude; how high do you want to FLY?”

CHAOS, another acronym, is perhaps the main reason for Cilley’s work. “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome” stems from having a house so cluttered that life seems to be caving in. Cilley concedes that this tends to be the curse of stay-at-home moms, but they’re not the only group turned into hermits by disorganized lives. “This is happening all over the world,” she notes. Cilley should know — her Web site draws more than 3,000 hits a day from people seeking the kind of help Cilley doles out. “Sometimes clutter creates depression, and then you can’t get anything done. Sometimes depression — especially postpartum depression — creates clutter.”

Cilley’s been there herself. She begins her book by admitting: “A few years ago I hit bottom. … I realized that one day my home was full of clutter, my sink was overrun with dirty dishes, and I looked like a truck had just run over me. I know the sheer embarrassment of having an unexpected visitor show up at the door.” But she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps — perhaps literally, as one of the FlyLady’s first lessons is to get dressed every morning, complete with lace-up shoes — and created a system of “BabySteps” that are guaranteed to get that bedlam under control. “In January ’99, it was my resolution to get things together. I needed to develop habits that would stick with me,” she remembers. “As my house started to come together, so did the rest of my life. I began volunteering and getting out.”

Cilley didn’t stop there, though: She ran for public office and was elected to a four-year term as a Transylvania County Commissioner in 2000. “As I got organized, I began to have more free time,” she explains. “Before, I’d get bogged down with all the papers. I don’t have to file anymore — I have a clerk! But these days, I’m not plowing through all my paperwork to find a lost memo. I keep up with things via e-mail. It’s less clutter — as long as you’re not one of those people who has to print everything.”

And though Cilley does admit to still having to periodically tackle what she calls the “hot spots” where things tend to pile up, she’s able to conduct both her FlyLady business and her work as a county commissioner from home. It’s a far cry from the days of having to meet with guests on the porch. “Getting rid of the clutter helped us to upgrade,” reveals Cilley. “Two years ago, we remodeled — we had green shag carpet from the ’70s.”

New flooring plus a lot of other work increased the house’s value, but “being able to open the door to anyone is the best part,” Cilley insists. “During the elections two years ago, Robert [her husband] and I were both in the primaries. It was important to be able to invite people over.”

Once Cilley had managed to help herself, she set out to rescue others. She began by logging on to the SHE (Sidetracked Home Executives) Web site. When a fellow SHE reader asked Cilley to start an e-mail loop with her suggestions, the FlyLady took off. These days, Cilley and her helpers answer 2,000 e-mails a day.

“Sometimes a man e-mails us, but it’s almost always women,” confesses Cilley. “Men love order, and sidetracked home executives come in all shapes and sizes, not just female. But women aren’t afraid to ask for help. Sometimes guys find us because they want to fix their wife, and they get an attitude adjustment. It’s not about fixing someone else — it’s about fixing yourself.”

Despite Cilley’s admittedly bossy stance, she’s also full of encouragement, providing her recruits (whom she calls “FlyBabies”) with BabySteps that are simple enough for even the most overwhelmed home exec to follow. Step one is to shine your sink, and the FlyLady provides detailed instructions on how to do just that. Instead of cleaning the entire house in one fell swoop, Cilley recommends doing things a little at a time. No housecleaning activity requires more than 15 minutes. “You can do anything for 15 minutes,” is a FlyLady mantra. Other activities range from the list-driven morning and evening routines to the whimsical “27 Fling Boogie” — which consists of grabbing a garbage bag and racing through your house, discarding 27 pieces of trash at top speed.

The business end of FlyLady.net evolved from the overwhelming response to Cilley’s program. In the guise of helping people clean up their messy homes, Cilley speaks to the emotional needs of women and men who feel stranded and alienated by their chaotic lives. FlyLady.net offers e-mail groups, daily hints, testimonials and a line of products. “Last year, I was filling orders at the dining-room table,” says Cilley, nearly crying as she talks. “It became too much to handle from the home, so I hired a local stay-at-home mom to help.”

And as her business creates jobs, Cilley aims to keep things close to home. “I don’t want the [part of the company that fills her orders] to move away; we need jobs in Transylvania County,” she insists. For the time being, family members constitute a large part of her work force, and several women scattered around the country handle e-mail. “Right now, I’m waiting for Rep. Charles Taylor to bring this gigapop thing to Asheville,” she says, referring to his plan to bring high-speed Internet access to outlying areas of WNC. “I don’t want to move our Internet servers away from this area. The gigapop will make Asheville a hub, and it will increase business opportunities in our area.”

In July of 2001, Cilley decided to put the FlyLady’s advice into book form. “I wrote for three hours every day after I finished my morning routine,” she recalls. “I wrote this for people who don’t have access to the Internet. I give this information away for free on-line, and it will always be free or we’ll shut it down.” The next month, she began selling her self-published book. Before long, The Little Book That Could had caught the attention of major publishing companies, who began bidding on Sink Reflections. Bantam Books cut a deal with Cilley, and just last month, the New York-based company released Sink Reflections.

Cilley’s husband provided the financial backing that helped her get started, and he is co-owner of the company. “Someday I’ll be able to pay him back,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m still not making any money, but this is about more than that.” In fact, part of the reason Cilley went with Bantam Books is that they could relate to her business credo: “It’s not about selling a million books, it’s about changing a million lives and bringing peace to a million homes.”

“Recently, a lady came all the way from Beijing, China, to attend a FlyFest (a convention for FlyBabies),” Cilley reports, as the tears begin to flow. “I can’t believe someone would come all that way to see me. That’s why I can’t charge for the Web site — I don’t want to alienate anyone.” At first, she admits, she questioned her ability to effectively mentor even 100 people; but as interest has grown, Cilley has found the help she needs to keep spreading the word to tens of thousands.

And for a woman who, only a few years ago, was having trouble functioning at all, it’s a dream come true. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done, beside having my child and marrying my sweet darling,” she declares.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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